a magnificent gown at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Period Clothing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

When my husband suggested we go across the street to the V&A after we left the Natural History Museum in London, I honesty hesitated, wondering whether it’s a good idea to take the kids to a museum about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Yes. That is correct. I really thought the Victoria and Albert Museum is ABOUT Victoria and Albert, and thought it would be better to go to the Science Museum instead.

I had no idea that, as V&A’s “A Brief History of the Museum” explains, the museum, established in 1852, was renamed The Victoria and Albert Museum “in memory of the enthusiastic support Prince Albert had given to its foundation.”

I don’t think it actually has a lot about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. If it does, we haven’t seen that part.

Instead, we saw a lot of beautiful period clothing, a bit of Indian art, some amazing jewelry, and gorgeous silverware, but I’m not going to try to cover all of it in one post. Instead, this post will focus just on a few dresses and items we saw in the period clothing section.

18th-Century Fashion

While I am very grateful that corsets and bustles went out of style a century ago, and even though I very rarely wear dresses, I do like to look at period clothing mostly because of how elaborate it is.

You simply can’t just walk by this gorgeous 1740s mantua, “an open-fronted silk or fine wool gown with a train and matching petticoat.”

Looking at the exquisite needlework, I wondered how long it took to make it, and how many seamstresses labored over the silk from which this dress was made to make the flowers so botanically accurate.

It is so sad that while we know who might have worn it, the name of the artist or maker of this amazing garment is unknown.

(click on the photos to open the full size gallery)

A couple of decades later, dresses got narrower, or maybe the owner of this 1760s gown was of a bit lower status. I am actually not sure, since I don’t know a whole lot about fashion history.

1760s sack-back gown of blue silk damask, trimmed with blue fly fringe
1760s sack-back gown of blue silk damask, trimmed with blue fly fringe

It seems the gown came with matching blue shoes adorned with a big buckle.

lower part of the 1760s sack-back gown of blue silk damask, trimmed with blue fly fringe
lower part of the 1760s sack-back gown of blue silk damask, trimmed with blue fly fringe

Again, the name of the artist or maker who made this gown is unknown. I loved its shade of blue, and the shiny fabric.

Even men’s clothes were elaborately embroidered in that era.

Elaborately embroidered coat for a man seen at the V&A. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of the label with identifying information.
Elaborately embroidered coat for a man seen at the V&A. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of the label with identifying information.

Quite a piece, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, I did not take photo of the label explaining the period in which this fancy coat was made, and I can’t find it in the V&A “Collection” section of the museum site.

19th-Century Fashion

Fast forward over fifty years, and the ball gowns have changed completely.

This 1820s ball gown shows the characteristic high waist, and narrow skirt. But even though it may be not as elaborate as the dresses above, I still think it is pretty interesting, not only because I love Pride & Prejudice.

1820s ball gown of silk satin and silk net embroidered with metal and trimmed with silk blonde bobbin lace
1820s ball gown of silk satin and silk net embroidered with metal and trimmed with silk blonde bobbin lace

While the gown above looks actually reasonably comfortable to wear, fashion of the upcoming decades was not as friendly to a woman’s body.

Enter crinolines, corsets, and bustle pads.

As you can read on the “Corsets and Crinolines in Victorian Fashion” page, cage crinolines, like the one below, marked “A Favorite of the Empress,” were invented in the 1850s.

crinoline cage from the 1860s, marked "A Favorite of the Empress"
crinoline cage from the 1860s, marked “A Favorite of the Empress”

The crinoline cages were made of spring steel hoops, suspended on cotton tape, and according to the article, even though they look rather tricky to wear the hoops were supposedly much better for women, as they “liberated” them from layers and layers of heavy petticoats.

“Cages” however seem to be nothing compared to the corsets and bustles of the later years.

The corset below might look sexy, and I gather there is quite a market for sexy corsets nowadays as well (according to my friend who makes custom clothing under the label Cloak and Dagger Creations, and sells a lot of corsets at various events), but I’m thinking “Thanks, but no thanks.”

My main thought at seeing this corset from the 1880s is “Okay, this is from a Victorian era, so undergarments were supposed to be modest, weren’t they? Then why is this piece red and why is it adorned with lace on top?”

If you happen to know the answer, please do leave a comment.

1883 corset at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London
1883 corset at the Victoria & Albert Museum

As if corsets weren’t bad enough, apparently someone decided that women should have a more prominent “behind” and should wear “bustle pads” as well.

English bustle pad, or "dress improver" from the 1880s
English bustle pad, or “dress improver” from the 1880s

Some bustle pads, like the one above, were fairly simple and flat, while others seem the be huge and rather oddly shaped.

I found it rather funny to read in the description of the bustle below that “Victorian ladies considered the word ‘bustle’ rather vulgar” and preferred to use the term ” “‘tournure’ or ‘dress-improver.'”

1875 bustle pad, image downloaded from the V&A website
1875 bustle pad, image downloaded from the V&A website

Dress improver, indeed…

I did admire this late 1860s gown by celebrated Monsieur Vignon, a highly skilled couturier whose clients included Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III of France.

According to the label, the hem of this dress measures over five meters. The label does not say how much this dress weighs, but I bet it is quite heavy.

That is why even though I secretly wondered what I’d look like in something like this,  all in all, I can’t really imagine having to wear it for an extended period of time.

Whenever I see dresses like these I keep remembering a passage from Homeless People by Polish writer Stefan Żeromski, in which a poor governess, or rather a tutor,  writes:

Oh, those floor-length dresses! They are surely nice, perfect, and beautiful, but only for ladies who never walk down muddy streets, and ride in carriages exclusively.

For us, who need to tramp in the mud of the poorer districts, it is complete torture. It is disgusting to hoist the skirts higher (plus impossible, since dozens of men will immediately start staring). My hands stiffen while holding the skirts, but the alternative is letting them get splattered with mud and wear piles of dirt al day.

I carry my umbrella, books, and notebooks in one hand, but with the other I must always nurse my dress train and thus move along city sidewalks. Propriety allows low decolletage and bare arms, but forbids showing the world one’s leg above ankle, even in a thick stocking and high boots.

I wonder, if fashion ordered us to attach to our backs kangaroo tails, would we obey as piously as now, carrying our dress tails?

(my own, somewhat loose translation of the Polish text)

All in all, even though I also loved this beautiful “lawn dress” from the beginning of the twentieth century, and the hand crocheted flowers that adorn it, since according to the description “the wearer would have worn rigid corseting underneath,” I think I am very glad that I am writing this post in my favorite yoga pants.

What do you like to wear? Have you ever had a chance to try on a period dress complete with corset, cage, or a bustle? How did it feel?

By the way, if you’d like to see more photos of period clothing, take a look at our “Period Clothing at the Victoria & Albert Museum” album on Flickr.

To see all 73 photos we took at the Victoria & Albert Museum, go to the “Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, London, UK” album.

Visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum is located at Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL.

The closest underground station is the South Kensington  station on the Piccadilly, Circle and District Line. (see our post “Sightseeing in London? Use Public Transportation!” for more information on the London underground or the tube, as they call it.)

Admission to the V&A is free, but some exhibitions and events may carry a separate charge.

For detailed information, see the museum’s “Visit Us” page.

The museum is definitely worth a visit. I can’t wait to see it again.

Where to Stay in London if you want to be near the Victoria & Albert Museum?

If you want to stay somewhere close to the Victoria & Albert Museum, there are several hotels, apartments, and guest houses to choose from. Take your pick!

Shout Out to #WeekendWanderlust

If you like reading about travel, take a look at blogs featured on the #WeekendWanderlust page on Facebook, or linked through the linkup on Outbound Adventurer’s “Past Time: Bring paleontology into your classroom!” post.

Lots of interesting travelers hanging out on that page.

#WeekendWanderlust logo
#WeekendWanderlust logo

 

 

17 thoughts on “Period Clothing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London”

    1. Thank you for reading, Andrea! I’ve tried on a corset and kind of “show” skirt that my friend Dina makes, but not a period dress. I’d love to see how I’d look like in something like that, but I’m pretty sure I’d hate wearing it every day.

  1. I’m not a huge fan of fashion and trendy clothes, but I have to admit that seeing how the dresses have change in the years for both male and female is very interesting. I’ve never been to the V&A museum and I didn’t know there was so much to see, I guess next time I’m in London I should pay it a visit :)
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    1. Thank you for reading, Franca! I’m glad you liked this post. And yes, the V&A is definitely worth visiting. Make sure you have several hours to do that, because just kind of running through it, like we did, doesn’t do it justice.

    1. Thank you for reading, Jessi! Yes, the talent of some of those seamstresses from long ago is amazing. So sad that their names are lost to history.

    1. Thank you for reading, Evanne! There’s a textile Museum in Chian Mai? I do hope you get to visit and blog about it!

    1. Thank you for reading, Gretta! I’m glad you liked this post. I also tend to prefer comfortable clothes, but old fashions fascinate me. You are so lucky to be able to see this museum frequently!

  2. What an interesting post! I love exhibitions of fashion and textiles. The Bendigo Gallery (about two hours from Melbourne) recently had an underwear exhibition which was all items from the V&A. Fascinating to trace the changes in fashion through undergarments.

    1. Thank you for reading, Fairlie! I can’t find a post about the underwear exhibition on your blog. Have you written about that?

    1. Thank you for reading, Mary! We saw only a part of the V&A, so I think my kids liked the British Museum a bit more, but we’re definitely going back there some time.

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